Last week, I shared some surprising secrets about creative success and why it's sometimes unfair. My intent was to show you how the “system” worked so you could use it to your benefit. What I didn't realize is how discouraging that could be.
One reader wrote, telling me that my story frustrated him. He didn't live in Nashville and lacked the access to people that I had. So what hope did he have? Some female friends pointed out that my being a white male may have acted as an invisible advantage — even if I didn't realize it.
The more I thought about these objections, the more aware I became. So I decided to write a public reply and share it with anyone who's feeling discouraged about where they are in their creative work and what to do when playing by the rules doesn't work.
But first, an apology…
The last thing I ever want to do with my work is to come across self-congratulatory or unhelpful. So if at any time I've done that with my blog, I'm sorry. I believe there are opportunities available to everyone, wherever you are, but sometimes those opportunities aren't equal.
Yes, luck is often involved in the success of a creative individual. But what do you do when it just feels like the deck is stacked against you? What do you do when you don't stand a chance against the lucky? That's what I want to explore.
Don't give up. That's my first piece of advice. In fact, it's often my only advice for writers. Don't quit. Keep going. It's more important than you realize.
I spent seven years as a failed blogger before I finally figured out what I was doing wrong and how to fix it. But without that perseverance, I never would have learned.
Sometimes, when things aren't working, the answer is to keeping going. Sometimes.
Maybe, though, you're doing everything right and it's just taking a little bit longer than you expected. That's a possibility, too. We often want things to happen more quickly than they do, but that doesn't mean they won't at some point come to be.
So hang in there, keep practicing, and keep reaching out to people — not for the sake of getting them to notice you, but for the sake of helping them. As my dad always told me, “What goes around comes around.” And most of the time, I think he's right.
Notice hidden opportunity
For many of us, opportunity is staring us in the face. We just fail to notice it.
How many stories are based on this truth — that the thing you love, the thing you're most wired to do, is the thing you are ignoring? Every romantic comedy, every heroic tale, almost every great invention reinforces this:
But if there aren't opportunities available, what do you do then? Go where the opportunity is. You don't have to move to a new city, necessarily. You can connect with someone while they're traveling through the area or save money to attend a conference where they'll be. You can even Skype or email them.
There are always options for those willing to look.
Find your own table
Don't try to get a seat at someone else's table. Create your own.
On the surface, this may sound dismissive, like the scene in Forrest Gump where all the kids on the bus say, “Seat's taken.” But that's not what I'm saying at all.
I think that this is the only way new markets are discovered and brilliant ideas come about — not by getting invited to the same party everyone else is attending, but by sometimes throwing your own.
Personally I'm interested in exploring how we can create more opportunity for those feeling left out, dismissed, or overlooked. There are real inequities in our world, but working to overcome them is both honorable and possible.
You can't escape the system
Here's the truth, though. Every industry has its own set of rules and norms we have to play by for our work to be taken seriously. But what if that system rejects or just plain ignores you? Well, that doesn't have to be the end of it.
There are a few options:
- Get better. This isn't always the answer, but it often can be an answer. Steve Martin once said, “Be so good they can't ignore you.” I think there is some truth to that. It may not be fair, but you can work so hard your work has to stand out. It's not right and definitely not fair, but it's an option.
- Find another table. If the people in the system don't like what you're doing, create a new system. A new network. This is what the French Impressionists did when the gatekeepers of art at the time rejected them. They made their own art gallery, and invited people to it. Guess what? A century later, people remember them. The world eventually caught up with that band of misfits. Rejection by the mainstream led to the creation of a whole new art form.
- Change the system. This one is hard to do if you're “outside” the system but not as impossible as it sounds. Jim Henson used advertising dollars to fund puppets who made fun of the very ads sponsoring the show. Oprah Winfrey climbed the ranks of an all-white media world to educate people on the importance of race (among other things). Use the system to subvert the system.
I think we all long for that beautiful moment in life when an unexpected voice says, “You can sit here if you want.” I would not be here if it weren't for my life being filled with those voices. And my sense is most of us have had those people in our lives at some point. Maybe it didn't come from a source you expected, but it came nonetheless.
My hope is that we can all be those voices for each other, that we can increase the size of the table and invite more people to the party. Call me naive, but I think there's room for more.
Last week, while speaking at a conference, someone asked me who inspires me. I think I said something like Walt Disney or Jim Henson. When I asked this person, an African American gentleman who started a homeless ministry, who inspires him, he said: “People who don't have a voice.”
He then proceeded to tell me story after inspiring story of individuals without a platform whose lives are making a difference. Wow. That really challenged me to use my voice to help more people get their messages and stories heard.
This one reason why I'm looking forward to Tribe Conference this week. It's my small way of trying to make the table a little bit bigger — by creating a new network, a place for people who have something to say but might not otherwise get heard.
I think the opportunities to do this kind of work, to create your own network and include those who may feel left out or discouraged by the system, are abundant. We just have to be willing to recognize and do something with them.
For more on using your disadvantages into advantages, check out Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath (which was where I first heard that story of the French Impressionists).
What do you think increasing the size of the table looks like? Practically, how can we (you and I) create more opportunity for others? Share your ideas in the comments.